Stifling Second Half Defense Lifts Spurs to 2-0 Lead Over SunsThe Phoenix Suns once again roared out to a double digit first half lead only to falter down the stretch, losing 102-96 in game two of their first round series versus the San Antonio Spurs. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 32 points and seven assists, Tim Duncan added 18 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots and Manu Ginobili--who received the Sixth Man Award prior to the game--contributed 29 points. Amare Stoudemire had a game-high 33 points but he completely disappeared in the second half, shooting 2-12 from the field. Steve Nash scored 23 points and passed for 10 assists but in the second half he had three turnovers and did not register an assist until just 14 seconds remained in the game. Shaquille O'Neal added 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots. O'Neal and Grant Hill--who was limited to fewer than 20 minutes due to injury--each had a team-best +3 plus/minus rating, while Stoudemire checked in at +1 and Nash registered a -3.
Nash won two regular season MVPs largely on the basis of his ability to make his teammates better but considering his own skill level and the talents of his teammates one would think that this should translate into more postseason success. Why is it that Nash gets the lion's share of the credit when things go right for Phoenix during the regular season but he is largely absolved of blame in the aftermath of their annual playoff breakdowns? The Suns are 3-10 versus the Spurs in the playoffs during the Nash era; during that period, Nash finished first, first and second in MVP balloting (with this year's result not yet announced) while Duncan finished fourth, eighth and fourth. Of course, Duncan won two championships and one Finals MVP from 2004 to the present.
The Suns traded away Shawn Marion to get O'Neal, figuring that he would provide the post presence that the team has consistently lacked. As noted above, the Suns have been the Spurs' punching bags for years but Phoenix beat San Antonio two times in the regular season after the O'Neal/Marion trade. Of course, those two victories are just distant, irrelevant memories now and in order to avoid elimination the Suns face the daunting task of beating the defending NBA champions four times in five games. What has gone wrong in the playoffs? What has changed since the Suns beat the Spurs in those regular season games? In game one, the Suns played very well overall but did not execute well or play with poise on a handful of late possessions that swung the outcome; in game two, the Suns played well for most of the first half before their offense completely died in the third quarter. Early in the contest, TNT's Doug Collins called this a "franchise-defining series" for the Suns and if that is the case then the defining moments of this series were probably those 12 minutes right after halftime. Despite blowing numerous chances to win game one, the Suns had a 61-54 halftime lead in game two and if they had held on to win this game then they would have enjoyed homecourt advantage as the series shifted to Phoenix. Instead, they shot 3-18 from the field, committed five turnovers and were outscored 27-11. Amazingly, five of those points came after Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich employed the "Hack a Shaq" strategy and O'Neal responded by making five out of six free throws; without those free points the Suns may not have reached double figures in the quarter. Meanwhile, throughout the game the Suns had trouble controlling the dribble penetration of Parker and Ginobili. Nash cannot guard either player, which forces the Suns to either use a zone or cross match, putting Nash on the small forward (usually Bruce Bowen) while the Suns' small forward (Hill or Boris Diaw) guards Parker. In previous games, Hill did a credible job filling Marion's shoes as the designated defender on Parker but Hill is hobbled now by a groin injury. Diaw and Leandro Barbosa contributed very little off of the bench, as each of them posted team-worst -18 plus/minus numbers.
If the Suns lose to the Spurs then that will be considered to represent a negative verdict on the O'Neal trade but I don't think that would be a fair or accurate assessment. As I said right after Suns' GM Steve Kerr pulled the trigger on this move, the Suns were never going to beat the Spurs without having some kind of post presence; adding O'Neal to the mix increased their chances of having postseason success. O'Neal has lived up to his end of the bargain, getting himself back in shape and accepting his role without question or complaint (Miami fans must be thrilled to see this after watching O'Neal lumber halfheartedly through the portion of the season during which he toiled for them but that is another story). With him in the mix they became a much better rebounding team and a much better defensive team in the paint. It could be argued that the Suns should have gotten him the ball more often in the second half to slow the game down; yes, the ironic thing about this game is that the supposedly stodgy Spurs employed a small lineup that decisively outperformed the Suns' small lineup.
The Suns made some questionable strategic moves during this game. For instance, I can understand using O'Neal as a decoy to free up Stoudemire--but why did the Suns repeatedly force feed the ball to Boris Diaw in the post in the second half? Diaw is a reluctant scorer, so the matchup advantage that he would seem to have over the shorter Ginobili or Parker is really not an advantage at all because it is not in Diaw's nature to have a shoot first mentality; that is why Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich defended Diaw that way in the first place. Popovich is outcoaching D'Antoni at every turn in this series. As Bum Phillips once said about Don Shula, "He could take his'n and beat your'n or he can take your'n and beat his'n"--one gets the distinct impression that if Popovich had Nash, Stoudemire and O'Neal at his disposal then he would find a better way to take advantage of what they do well. The Spurs' players have some obvious matchup advantages but the same can be said of the Suns' players versus their counterparts--and yet during the crucial moments of the first two games we are seeing the Spurs execute their plans calmly and efficiently while the Suns appear to be rattled and uncertain. Popovich is continually acting while D'Antoni is reacting; Popovich controls the tempo of the game by deciding to go with a small lineup or a big one and D'Antoni always seems to be a step behind.
Since 2006, five teams have lost playoff games after leading by at least 16 points--and Nash's Suns account for four of those five losses. Tuesday's loss to San Antonio almost made Phoenix five for six in this dubious category, because the Suns nearly pushed their advantage to 16 points, leading 26-12 in the first quarter before being outscored 90-70 the rest of the way. The ability to repeatedly get such big leads shows that the Suns have a lot of talent--and their propensity for squandering such advantages should raise questions about how D'Antoni and Nash are running the show. Particularly now that the Suns have a legitimate post up threat with O'Neal there is no justification for them to blow double digit leads; those situations are the perfect times to take the air out of the ball and let O'Neal pound the opposing big men into submission and/or foul trouble. Just like I think that Dallas made a mistake last year by trying to match up with Golden State in the first round of the playoffs, I think that it is incorrect for the Suns to always be reacting to the lineups that the Spurs use. The Suns should force the Spurs to bend to their will, not vice versa.
It is possible that the Suns will win two games at home to make this a competitive series once again but O'Neal's history in this regard is not promising; his teams were swept in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999 and 2007, although his 2004 Lakers did rebound from a 2-0 deficit versus the Spurs to win four straight games. The most important thing for the Suns is to maintain their focus and intensity throughout the game; their players seem to be very apt to ride waves of emotion, whether those waves are positive or negative.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 AM